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Liszt and Hungarian Nationalism

Due to popular demand, I now introduce you to my final essay on Liszt and his Hungarian nationalism. I hope you all enjoy it.

P.S., I took out all my references, so if you're thinking about plagiarizing it you're out of luck. Matt Lamar, 23 April, 2012.

Nationalism is one of the most consistent underlying traits of 19th-Century music. It can be found in connection with instrumental and vocal music in addition to simple dance and complex staged, operatic works. Naturally, the most accomplished composers of the 19th-century dabbled with it, some completely immersing themselves in it. Franz Liszt was not exempt from this apparent connection. A Hungarian, Liszt lived abroad much of his life yet nevertheless continued to incorporate aspects of his homeland into his music. Evidence of this nationalism is apparent in both his piano works and his symphonic poems, arguably the genres in which Liszt contributed the most to musical posterity. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Hungaria are prime examples of Liszt’s nationalism.

Like other aspects of music, musical nationalism mirrored the political and social developments of the time, in this case the 19th century. The roots of musical nationalism can be traced to the European Enlightenment. Philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s ‘social contract’ provided a template with which the Enlightenment communicated: words and language. This emphasis on communication altered music’s purpose and, combined with the new political philosophies of the day, connected music with the national as never before. In short, “The nation was to be a collectively articulated through song”. Folk songs, therefore, became a nexus of development for compositions intended for nationalistic goals. These folk songs were purely of the people and were unique to regions and ethnicities. The burgeoning national mindset therefore began to claim them as their own, appropriating them as the natural national style.

Folk music does not, however, immediately undergo an immediate metamorphosis to suddenly represent all that a nation is or has been. Philip Bohlman argues that folk music undergoes a journey. He describes this as a “national journey”, undergoing a “transition from representing the immanent quintessence of the nation to representing the nation itself. In doing so, folk music further brings into being an historical dialectic that connects land to nation”. Furthermore, Bohlman draws a line between two aspects of nationalism. National music “reflects the image of the nation so that those living in the nation recognize themselves in basic but crucial ways”. Essentially, national music is an inclusive force, drawing together those separate but similar elements of a nation like magnets. It evokes positive feelings for the nation through nostalgia and ‘togetherness’. The other section is nationalist music, which “serves a nation-state in its competition with other nation-states”. It emphasizes differences and is easily corrupted by the idea of superiority, which manifests itself through the thought that ‘our’ music is better than ‘your’ music. An argument can be made that this nationalist music was a particularly important ingredient in the breaking of 19th-century nationalism. Fueled by these nationalist feelings of entitlement, pride, and divides, Europe crept closer to a major conflict. In hindsight, World War I was inevitable: nationalist ideas were too prevalent to coexist peacefully.

When examining a specific composer, however, elements of both can be found, as is the case with Franz Liszt. Liszt was born in 1811 and quickly became known as a virtuoso performer; his family moved to Vienna in 1821. This would begin a life in which Liszt was seldom in his native land of Hungary. Liszt did not even grow up speaking Hungarian—rather, he spoke German, as his home village of Raiding was of mixed Hungarian and German elements. It would have been easy to ally himself with the Germans, whose giants of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were looming figures whose legacy wormed its way into almost every aspect of music making. However, Liszt did not do so, and instead considered himself a Hungarian.

How exactly did Liszt feel toward his homeland of Hungary? Though we can obviously never know his complete thoughts, his words and music illuminate what he likely felt. Liszt considered himself Hungary’s “true and grateful son” and supported Hungarians’ attempt at a more distinct Hungarian culture within the Austro-Hungarian empire. In addition, Liszt’s alliance with Hungary paid dividends for him later in life. In 1870, he returned to Hungary, fleeing the Franco-Prussian war. While there, he received an honorary appointment as Royal Councillor in addition to numerous accolades as Hungary’s best and foremost composer. He composed for a number of festive pieces, including his Five Hungarian Folksongs, which were sometimes used for state occasions. Liszt fully embraced his Hungarian heritage at this stage in his life.

Liszt did not just suddenly achieve that kind of association and notoriety with Hungary; over the years, Liszt kept Hungary in mind in his years abroad and composed multiple pieces overtly related to Hungary. It is appropriate, then, to examine overt pieces of Liszt’s national music in order to understand the connection between Liszt and Hungary. Perhaps Liszt’s most overtly national (or nationalist) piece of music was his symphonic poem Hungaria. Liszt composed the piece in 1854 and was his ninth symphonic poem. Unlike most of his symphonic poems, Hungaria does not have a specific program or storyline. Despite this fact, the piece still retains a programmatic nature. In this way, it serves as a compositional forefather to Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia. In addition to the obvious similarity in title, both pieces feature both national and nationalist fervor, painting a picture of the homeland with an orchestral brush whilst refraining from a specific program.

Hungaria’s specific ‘Hungarian-ness’ can be seen in a couple of ways. Much of its specific melodic interest comes from the so-called ‘gypsy scale,’ of which Liszt was interested in even as a child. This gypsy scale did not conform to either the major or minor modes. Rather, its modifications gave the piece a specific scale. Both the gypsy scale and the ‘kalindra’ (Phrygian) scales contained the interval of the augmented second, an interval which does not appear in a major/minor scale. In addition, Hungaria shows a number of other different and Hungarian influences. Chief among these are verbunkos, lassu and friss, accentuated rhythms, and orientation. The verbunkos is a type of Hungarian dance, and it can be quickly found in the beginning measures of the piece, right after the slow introduction. Lassu and friss, conversely, are Hungarian words meaning ‘slow’ and ‘fast’; these alternations can be found throughout the piece, but exhibit themselves immediately in the introduction and the following verbunkos. In bar 425, the lighthearted, energetic nature gives way to a funeral march. It is thought that this funeral march refers to those who perished in the failed 1848 Hungarian Revolution. However, like Finlandia, Hungaria ends with a flourish, ending on an optimistic, hopeful note for the future of the nation.

In addition to this overt expression of Hungarian nationalism, Liszt incorporated Hungarian elements into his other pieces—the gypsy scale in the opening measures of his Sonata in B Major, for example. Liszt was not just interested in Hungarian elements, either; he was influenced by folk songs of all kinds and included elements of Spanish, Russian, and English folk melodies into a bevy of pieces. This fondness for folk songs, combined with his Hungarian nationalism, prompted Liszt to write a series of works called the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Liszt wrote 19 of these piano works in rhapsodic form, 15 of them composed in a productive three-year stretch in Weimar from 1851-1853. They have become some of Liszt’s most popular and famous compositions, and many have been transcribed for orchestra. In particular, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 has received notoriety by appearing in cartoons starring Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 happens to be a good emissary for the 19 rhapsodies. Unlike the symphonic poem Hungaria, Rhapsody No. 2 was originally written for piano and therefore contains much of the virtuosity that Liszt is well known for. Indeed, these rhapsodic pieces often required virtuosic runs and improvisational skill. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is no different, as multiple cadenzas offer the performer a chance to illustrate his or her ability. Rhapsody No. 2 also very clearly illustrates the concept of lassu and friss. The piece begins with a heavy and dark theme punctuated by full chords in the bass. The tempo is slow and plodding, and even when it gains speed, it never goes beyond a moderate tempo. The Hungarian/gypsy scale makes an appearance as well, first appearing just after the first cadenza and is restated at the beginning of the fast, friss section. This rhapsody demonstrates the lassu/friss dichotomy very clearly, as the fast section moves to a major key, dispensing notions of somberness or weight. Instead, a folksy dance takes over, and one might decide that the music is depicting happy Hungarian event.

Franz Liszt’s faithfulness to his home of Hungary was clearly seen. In addition to compositions like Hungaria and the Hungarian Rhapsodies, he also composed a number of other pieces dominated by his Hungarian heritage. Late in life, he composed a set of csárdás, a native Hungarian dance, which would serve as precursors to other Hungarian nationalists to come, namely Béla Bartók. The reasons for Liszt’s perceived association with a country in which he spent so little time are somewhat of a mystery for us—Liszt did not even choose to be buried there (he is buried in Bayreuth, Germany). However, it is clear that, whatever his motivation, Liszt became one of the foremost nationalists. In this way, Liszt carved a new path for himself, one that the past greats of Mozart and Beethoven did not tread upon, therefore fulfilling his wish to write innovative and quality music.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.

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